The Homeric hymn to Aphrodite is basically a story about how Zeus curbs Aphrodite by turning her own game upon herself. This hymn, therefore, is an episode in the “war of the sexes” in which the supreme male god, Zeus, evens the score with the supreme female goddess, Aphrodite.
With the exception of Hestia, Artemis and Athena - three goddesses - Aphrodite has power over all the gods, humans and beasts. These three virginal goddesses are associated with the three places that, in the culture of ancient Greece, one should not be thinking about sex, namely, the hearth, the hunt and the battlefield. Everywhere else, Aphrodite rules and “tames”.
The use of the term tame is interesting. We might think of sex as a passion that makes people more wild, but in this vision, Aphrodite’s “work” (erga) is to tame. In modern terms we might say that libido tames the ego by cutting down our grandiose aspirations. Thus Aphrodite’s work undermines hubris. When people fall in love, the very human side of them appears and their aspiration to be super rational comes apart. Even the king of the gods cannot escape this reduction.
Aphrodite likes to show off her power by playing tricks on the gods by making them fall in love with mortal women. They then usually deceive these women into having sex with them and subsequently bearing semi-divine children. Mortals who get caught up in such games sometimes emerge as heroes and sometimes come to a bad end, often both. Such stories illustrate, inter alia, the deceptions employed in the art of seduction.
Zeus has been subject to Aphrodite’s tricks several times. This is rather beneath the dignity of a god. Zeus, therefore, gets his own back by arranging that Aphrodite herself fall in love with the beautiful Trojan man Anchises. She goes to him and deceives him in spite of his own better judgement into thinking that she is a mortal and they have sex and she gets pregnant and bears a child.
In the course of this seduction there is a great irony which will not have been lost on the original audience in that Aphrodite uses all the wiles that are usually used by men to seduce women, falsely promising marriage, promising gifts and talking of an illustrious, though wholly fictitious, family ancestry full of great deeds.
This kind of myth provided some support for the claims of great leaders and warriors to be above the common mortal herd, having divine blood in their veins, even if, finally, they are still human. In this case, it is Aeneas, the hero of the Trojans who is born as the child of Aphrodite and reared by the nymphs, who are a race intermediate between gods and humans. Aeneas is the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, and hence all the Romans can claim descent from Aphrodite.
However the story is primarily illustrative of the battle between Zeus and Aphrodite for supremacy among the gods each limiting the other's power and leading the other into undignified compromised situations and actions.
In ancient Greek culture the greatest sin was hubris. Hubris is setting oneself up as godlike. Arguably the whole of modern culture is an example of rampant hubris. The Greeks believed that humans have their properly delineated status above the beasts and below the gods. In this hymn, however, we see how even the gods place limits upon each other. Even among themselves, a certain kind of hubris is to be eschewed.
The humans are caught up in this drama as semi-victims. They can defy the gods, but generally with dire consequences. At the end of this song, Aphrodite warns Anchises not to tell anybody that he has had sexual relations with the goddess for fear of the menis (wrath) of the gods. Not in this song but in other sources, Anchises does later tell of his experience and for this Zeus strikes him with a thunderbolt. Aphrodite deflects the bolt so that Anchises is not destroyed totally, but he is left blind and lame.
Aphrodite herself is left with a sense of dire grief that she has gone beneath herself and slept with a mortal and she knows that her power is thereby diminished somewhat. So now the dishonour as between Zeus and Aphrodite is about evens.
Most scholars see this tale as finally establishing the authority of Zeus - the male - and simultaneously bringing to an end the “age of heroes”, namely those who are of mixed divine and human birth. This is an interesting equivalence. Most of these heroes are men but here we see the dominance of the male leading to the demise of the role of hero. It is as if what is being said is that when men are completely dominant it is impossible to be a proper man anymore. Only in the age when Aphrodite rules supreme can men be real men. This is because the patriarchal order is so orderly that there is no room for heroism any more. The influence of Aphrodite, however, introduces freedom and chaos and so, opportunity.
One could make quite a bit of this, though, I suggest, it is not the only possible interpretation. One can also see the whole thing, as I have suggested above, as an arriving at a balance of power. The different styles of men and women in their sexual encounters are contrasted and, to an extent, sent up, but in the song it is not correct that Aphrodite is left unable to mix mortals and gods again, but only that she is no longer able to boast about it. In the new age, the heroes are to be incognito and the exercise of divine powers is to become more subtle, by Zeus and Aphrodite alike, and in keeping things this way, Zeus and Aphrodite are left implicitly in tacit co-operation. When Anchises disobeys Aphrodite by declaring her influence it is Zeus who punishes him, though Aphrodite moderates the punishment, as happens in so many families.
There is also a further irony in that although Zeus, alarmed that so many humans were scaling heaven with their greatness, may have contrived the Trojan War in order to exterminate the heroic generation and then humiliated Aphrodite in order to warn her to desist from mating gods and humans thus generating further heroes, the means by which he humiliates her leads to the birth of Aeneas from whom then spring the greatest race of heroes of the ancient world. Thus cosmic balance is restored and the dynamic between gods and humans, male and female, persists, each apparently final victory being shown by the inevitable irony of fate to be hollow, even when it is that of the most powerful of the gods.